The major parties in the U.S. are not ideological parties in the European sense, but are constantly changing coalitions.
Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, particularly gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture; of all the political and economic forces involved… It’s not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised.
This statement was part of the opening to a widely-circulated article I wrote about two years ago, “Strategic Thinking on the U.S. Six Party System.” It’s time to take my own advice, and reassess the working hypothesis I put forward back then.
For the most part, the strategic picture holds. I suggested setting aside the traditional “two party system” frame, which obscures far more than it reveals, and making use of a “six party” model instead. The new hypothesis, I suggested, had far more explanatory power regarding the events unfolding before us.
Some critics have objected to my use of the term “party” for what are really factional or interest group clusters. The point is taken, but I would also argue that U.S. major parties in general are not ideological parties in the European sense, but constantly changing coalitions of these clusters with no firm commitment to program or discipline. So I will continue to use “parties,” but with the objection noted.
The “six parties,” under two tents, were labeled as the Tea Party and the Multinationalists under the GOP tent, and the Blue Dogs, the Third Way New Democrats, the Old New Dealers, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, under the Democratic tent. Most of these ran at least one presidential candidate as their voice — Bernie Sanders for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Martin O’Malley for the Old New Dealers, Hillary Clinton for the Third Way, Jim Webb for the Blue Dogs, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for the Multinationalists, and a mixed bag under Tea Party (The GOP had 17 contenders starting off, and Hillary nearly hegemonic in the Democrats).
First and most important for us on the left was the rise of Bernie Sanders.
The changes, however, are important. Instead of four under the Dem tent and two under the GOP tent, we now have three under each. First and most important for us on the left was the rise of Bernie Sanders, who showed far more strength than imagined. Second was the dramatic and unexpected flowering of Trump and right-wing populism on the right. Both of these, from different directions, challenged, narrowed, and weakened the dominant neoliberal hegemonic bloc, which spanned both the GOP multinationals and the Third Way Democrats. Here’s a new snapshot of the range of forces for today, starting from the left side:
The Rainbow Social Democrats. This is a better description than simply calling it the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It doesn’t mean each leader active here is in a social-democrat group. It means the core of the CPC platform is roughly similar to the left social democrat groupings in Europe, and this is made even more evident with Bernie’s self-description as a “democratic socialist.”
It must be noted, however, that even though he’s made the term “democratic socialist” more popular and acceptable, he’s not running on socialism, but on a platform best described as a common front vs finance capital, war, and the right. This is true of groups like Die Linke (“The Left”) in Germany as well. This is good, since it can unite more than a militant minority of actual socialists. Instead it’s a platform that can also unite a progressive majority around both immediate needs and structural reforms, including both socialists and non-socialists.
For details, see Bernie’s full platform at BernieSanders.com. Joining with Sanders in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, are PDA leaders such as Rep. Raul Grijalva of New Mexico, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Rep Barbara Lee of California — all key voices giving the “party” a “rainbow” character.
It needs to be noted, though, that the Congressional Black Caucus, close overlapping ally of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has largely gone over to Hillary and the Third Way grouping, with the result of only three out of 10 Black voters currently going for Sanders. Sanders does manage to win Latino voters by larger numbers. For example, all the Latino wards in Chicago on the second Super Tuesday went for Sanders, while the Black wards continued to be dominated by Clinton.
Apart from winning several primaries with a positive, high road approach, this party is noted for two things: first, the huge, elemental outpourings of young people, mainly students and the young workers of the distressed “precariat” sector of the class, in gigantic rallies and “Bernie marches”; and second, by an incredible online fundraising machine, involving some five million donors, making small donations every few weeks or months, that enables the campaign to continue to thrive without Super PACs’ or other wealthy donors. This points the way for candidates of the left in the future at all levels.
The Keynesian Liberal-Labor Bloc. Previously called the Old New Dealers, this is a bit more accurate as a label. It’s mainly the political action side of the AFL-CIO and their close allies in civil rights, women’s and retiree groups, and several related think tanks like Campaign for America’s Future. They are currently fence-sitting, after O’Malley made a bid for their support, but collapsed. Many among the leadership of their base organizations are leaning toward Hillary, while many below lean toward Bernie. Expect them to side with Clinton in the end, since she has been going all out with a “united front from above” approach to winning them to an alliance with her Third Way party.
Bernie has taken a ‘united front from below’ approach, aimed at the rank and file.
In similar fashion, Bernie has taken a “united front from below” approach, aimed at the rank and file, that has won over the Transit Workers, Nurses, and Postal Workers unions, and former leaders of the NAACP like Ben Jealous. Once this party with its union base does get into motion, however, it has a powerful get-out-the-vote and educational apparatus. It will face a special problem, however, in winning workers at the base away from Trump, who are estimated at as much as 33% of white workers, although some of these workers may also be more inclined toward Sanders than Clinton.
The Third Way New Democrats. Formed by the Clintons, with an international assist from Tony Blair and others, and funded by Wall Street finance capitalists, their founding idea was to move toward neoliberalism by “creating distance” between themselves and the traditional Left-Labor-Liberal bloc, the traditional unions and civil rights groups still connected to the New Deal legacy. Another part of the “Third Way” thinking was to shift the key social base away from the core of the working class to college-educated suburban voters, but keeping its alliances with Black and women’s groups still functional.
Thus it tries to temper the harsher neoliberalism of the GOP by “triangulating” with neo-Keynesian policies. But the overall effect is to move Democrats generally rightward. While this has been Hillary Clinton’s starting point, in the current campaign she has, piece by piece, adopted some positions, at least for the sake of campaigning, from both the Liberal-Labor bloc and the Rainbow Social Democrats to what she espouses in her stump speeches.
GOP turnout is up, while Democratic turnout is lackluster, save for Bernie rallies.
In terms of the current relation of forces, counting by delegates, Hillary currently has a two-to-one advantage over Bernie. The Third Way and allied groupings, however, are facing serious problems at the base. In many races, GOP turnout is up, while Democratic turnout is lackluster, save for Bernie rallies. Part of this is racialized, with 90% or more Blacks favoring either Clinton or Sanders, while white workers are split, as just noted, with as much as a third going to Trump and the GOP.
The Blue Dogs. This party has collapsed. Its presidential candidate, Jim Webb, dropped out after a few rounds in the debates where he gained little traction. He tried to combine pro-militarism with an anti-Iraq war stand. He then explored the prospects of a third party run, but recently held a press conference giving it up. He also indicated he was leaning toward Trump, which fits in with his Southern and Appalachian social base among military-industrial workers. The Blue Dogs may return at some point, but we still get “six parties” rather than five by new developments under the GOP tent, most importantly, the huge expansion and then division of the Tea Party into two parties.
The GOP Establishment. This is the name now widely used in the media for what we previously labeled the Multinationalists. It’s mainly the upper crust and neoliberal business elites that have owned and run the GOP for years, allied with the smaller groups of neocons on foreign policy, and opposed by the anti-global neo-isolationist nationalism in a sector of the GOP base, ie, the Tea Party. The Establishment also favored a U.S. hegemonist and unilateralist approach abroad, with many still defending the Bush-Cheney disaster in Iraq.
Their candidates were Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, but when both of these collapsed under fire from Donald Trump, their voice is now reduced to that of John Kasich, governor of Ohio. Kasich presents himself as a pragmatic, pro-worker neoliberal, a difficult circle to square. Previously dominant in the GOP, the Establishment forces are now weakened by both sides of the Tea Party split, the Rightwing Populists under Trump and the Christian Nationalist Theocrats under Sen. Ted Cruz, who are currently both stronger in numbers than the “Establishment” party. They could be pushed out entirely by the time of the Cleveland convention, and formally split into two.
They present themselves as the only true, ‘values-centered’ (Biblical) conservatives.
The Christian Nationalist Theocrats. This is a subset of the former Tea Party made up of several Christian rightist trends, some simply conservative while others are theocracy-minded fundamentalists, especially the “Dominionist” sects of which Ted Cruz’s father is active. They present themselves as the only true, “values-centered” (Biblical) conservatives. They argue against any kind of compromise with the “liberal-socialist bloc'” which ranges, in their view, from the GOP’s Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders.
They are more akin to classic liberalism than neoliberalism in economic policy, and thus stress abandoning nearly all regulations, much of the safety net, overturning Roe v. Wade, getting rid of marriage equality (in the name of “religious liberty”) and abolishing the IRS and any progressive taxation in favor of a single flat tax. Effectively, it amounts to affirmative action for the better off, and the rise of the rich is supposed to pull everyone else upwards as well.
They do at times argue for neoisolationism on some matters, but favor an all-out holy war on “radical Islamic terrorism,” to the point of “making the sand glow,” and stand for ripping up Obama’s recent agreements with Iran and Cuba. With Cruz as their leader, they have become the second most powerful grouping under the GOP tent, and the one with the most reactionary platform and outlook, even more so than Trump.
The Rightwing Populists. Starting as still another subset of the Tea Party, this “party” has mushroomed under the self-bankrolled Trump candidacy. Trump, an “outlier elite” in his own right, is now positioned either to win the GOP nomination outright, or have a plurality of enough militant delegates at the GOP convention that the nomination will be given to him on the first or second ballots, or as Trump puts it, “there will be riots.” Given the fact that as many as one-third of the traditional GOP base is refusing to vote for Trump, with many willing to vote “third party” if one shapes up, and since they believe Hilary will defeat Trump anyway, the GOP, at this time, is thus effectively split into three warring parties.
The core outlook of Rightwing Populism is “producerism” vs “parasitism.” Employed workers, business owners, real estate developers, small bankers are all “producers” and they oppose parasite groups above and below, but mainly those of “the Other” below them — the unemployed (“Get a Job!” as an epithet), the immigrants, poor people of color, Muslims, and more. Trump entered politics by declaring Obama to be an illegal alien and an illegitimate office holder (a parasite above), but quickly shifted to Mexicans and Muslims and anyone associated with “Black Lives Matter.”
Trump’s favored outlook has deep roots in American history.
Trump’s favored outlook has deep roots in American history, from the anti-Indian ethnic cleansing of President Andrew Jackson, to the nativism of the Know Nothings, to the lynch terror of the KKK, to the anti-elitism of George Wallace and the Dixiecrats. Internationally, he combines aggressive jingoism, threats of trade wars, and an isolationist “white nationalism” aimed at getting others abroad to fight your battles for you.
Trump’s success, however, also contains his weakness: the support of distressed white workers. At present, they are forming the social basis of his victories, assuming they will get lush jobs with his ‘Make America Great Again!’ promises. The problem is, Trump has no programs. He only has hot buttons he pushes, but when it comes to spelling out an actual program and how any promise would be implemented and funded, he’s always the artful dodger. This creates an unstable class contradiction in his operation, one bound to surface as promises are unfulfilled.
What does it all mean?
With this brief descriptive and analytical mapping of the upper crust of American politics, many things begin to fall in place. The subaltern groupings in the GOP have risen in revolt against the losses imposed on them by the neoliberal Establishment of the Romneys and the Bushes. Ironically, this is “the chickens coming home to roost,” since the GOP Establishment has encouraged and funded these “New Right” alliances ever since Ronald Reagan’s and Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and its appeal to the base of George Wallace.
But they could never deliver the goods to right-wing workers. They were still, after all, workers, who saw themselves sinking or stagnating under the harsh neoliberalism of the right. Now, even though they have rebelled and flocked to a “Great Leader,” one whose rule would deepen every crisis and conflict facing the country, they are social dynamite.
On the other hand, the Hillary Clinton candidacy, seeking a “continuation” of the Obama administration, represents, at its core, an alliance between the “Third Way” and the Keynesian Labor Liberals, while holding out an olive branch to the Rainbow Social Democrats as an energetic but critical secondary ally.
The Sanders campaign, and its allied groupings, the Progressive Democrats of America and the Working Families Party, are still likely to soldier on to the convention, doing as much grassroots organizing along the way as they can. They have few illusions about Clinton’s leftward shift, and are well aware that campaigning is one thing, while governing is another. So they continue to press all their issues and policies of a common front vs finance capital, war, and the right, building more and more clout as they go.
This “big picture” also reveals much about the current budget debates, which are shown to be three-sided — the extreme austerity neoliberalism of all three parties under the GOP tent, the “austerity lite” budget of the Third Way-dominated Senate Democrats, and the left Keynesian, progressive and social democratic “Back to Work” budget of the Rainbow Social Democrats and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The “Keynesian Labor Liberals” remain caught in the middle, often holding decent programs as positions, but not willing to do much to fight for them, looking for safe ways “to go with the winner” and accept “half a loaf.”
The far right has grown in strength
All this shows why and how Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would likely be able to pull together a majority electoral coalition. But it also reveals why either of them might still be thwarted in pulling together an effective governing coalition in 2017, (assuming they are able to defeat Trump or Cruz). The far right has grown in strength and virulence, while the “regular” conservative right has grown in intransigence. They still hold the House and the Senate, though this may change a bit in November, but Congress will still be an obstacle to any Democrat in the White House.
The old Establishment, led by Kasich at this point, is likely to be out in the cold, unless they shift over to Hillary, which a few are already talking about. All the parties of the GOP right, especially the ones on top, need to be crushed in November 2016. Both Clinton and Sanders have strengths and weaknesses, but Sanders would likely be the stronger candidate, given the historic scandals and anti-worker policies of the Clintons. Trump has already warned that he will use every piece of mud he can find to sling in her direction.
Finally, there is the one major positive factor that was barely conceivable only two years ago: the dramatic youth insurgency behind the only socialist in Congress. No longer on the margins, Sanders has both widened the legitimacy of socialism and put anti-finance capital, antiwar, and anti-fascist proposals at the center of the country’s political discussion, and to audiences of tens of millions.
It didn’t come from nowhere, but can be best seen as a reemergent Occupy 4.0, following the original Occupy 1.0 explosion of protest against the Banksters, to Black Lives Matter and the Fight for 15 insurgencies (2.0), to the Climate Justice mobilizations (3.0). These are all elemental risings of the “precariat,” the young and stressed out and underemployed and debt-ridden sector of the working class and the oppressed generally, as a critical force in society calling on the main force, “the 99%,” to activate itself and enter the battleground.
In summary, here are a few things to keep in mind. If you decide to intervene in electoral work to build independent working class grassroots organizations, you don’t go “inside the Democratic Party.” There’s not much of an “inside” there anymore. Most of what is left are small groups of lawyers, fundraisers, and media consultants clustered tightly around each incumbent.
What you do instead is join or work with one of the two factions/”parties” that are left-of-center under its tent. Your aim is to make either of these stronger, preferably Rainbow Social Democrats. Then to shift the overall balance of forces, your task is to defeat the Rightwing Populists, the Christian Nationalist Theocrats, and the Establishment GOP while expanding the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But you want to do this in a way that builds your organizational clout and influence under the Democratic tent at the expense of the Third Way.
Strategically, we want to build a growing force along the class and democratic fault lines under that tent until it is stretched to the ripping point. Even in the short run, the balance of forces needs altering in favor of the left. At present, not a single piece of progressive legislation is going to get passed without a major shift in this direction, and that would require growing a new counter-hegemonic bloc inside and outside of the Democratic tent, and at all levels of government.
We are interested in pushing the popular front vs. finance capital to its limits.
We have to keep in mind, however, that “shifting the balance of forces” is mainly an indirect and somewhat ephemeral gain. It does “open up space,” but for what? Progressive initiatives matter for sure, but much more is required strategically. We are interested in pushing the popular front vs. finance capital to its limits, and within that effort, developing a 21st century socialist bloc.
If that comes to scale in the context of a defeat of the right, the “Democratic Tent” is also likely to collapse and implode, given the sharper class contractions and other fault lines that lie within it, much as the Whigs did in the 19th Century. That demands an ability to regroup all the progressive forces there and on the outside into a new “First Party” alliance, one that also includes a militant minority of socialists, which will be able to contend for power.
An old classic formula summing up the strategic thinking of the united front is appropriate here: “Unite and develop the progressive forces, win over the middle forces, isolate and divide the backward forces, then crush our adversaries one by one.” In short, we have to have a policy and set of tactics for each one of these elements, as well as a strategy for dealing with them overall. Moreover, take note of warning from the futurist Alvin Toffler: “If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.” Then finally, as to tactics, “wage struggle on just grounds, to our advantage and with restraint.”
To conclude, we still need to start with a realistic view of ourselves as an organized socialist left. We are quite small as organizations, but now we can see we are swimming in a sea of millions open to socialism. What can we do now? In brief, set up Jacobin/In These Times reading groups in your living rooms and unite socialists with them, join or start PDA or WFP chapters everywhere, use organizations and broad “Third Reconstruction” alliances and popular rainbow assemblies to build mass mobilizations and win elections, with both socialists and Rainbow progressives, starting at the base, focused on city and state governments, and expanding the Congressional Progressive Caucus. You rarely gain victories at the top that have not been won and consolidated earlier at the base.
Most of all, in order to form broader and winning coalitions, you need organizations of your own to form coalitions and alliances WITH! Seize the time and Git ‘er done!
[Carl Davidson, a longtime activist and author, is national co-chair of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is on the national board of Solidarity Economy Network, is active with Progressive Democrats of America, and is a member of Local 3657 of the United Steel Workers. A former vice-president and national secretary of SDS and news editor at the Guardian (U.S.), Carl lives in Western Pennsylvania.]